Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(2):367-368

Why should I exercise?

Increased physical activity can lead to a longer life and better health. Exercise helps prevent heart disease and many other problems. Exercise builds strength, gives you more energy, helps reduce stress, and can help you lose weight. It is also a good way to curb your appetite and burn calories.

Who should exercise?

Increased physical activity can benefit almost everyone. Most people can begin gradual, moderate exercise on their own. If you think there is a reason you may not be able to exercise safely, talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. In particular, your doctor needs to know if you have heart trouble, high blood pressure, or arthritis, or if you often feel dizzy or have chest pains.

What kind of exercise should I do?

Exercises that increase your heart rate and move large muscles (such as the muscles in your legs and arms) are best. Choose an activity that you enjoy and that you can start slowly and increase gradually as you become used to it. Walking is popular and does not require special equipment. Other good exercises include swimming, biking, jogging, and dancing. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator and walking instead of driving may also be good ways to be more active.

How long should I exercise?

Begin by exercising three or more times a week for 20 minutes or more, and work up to at least 30 to 45 minutes, four to six times a week. This can include several short bouts of activity in a day. Exercising during a lunch break or on your way to do errands may help you add physical activity to a busy schedule. Exercising with a friend or a family member can help make it more fun, and having a partner to encourage you can help you stick to it.

Is there anything I should do before and after I exercise?

You should start an exercise session with five to 10 minutes of warm-up exercises. Stretch your muscles slowly at first, and then gradually increase your level of activity. For example, begin walking slowly and then speed up the pace.

After you finish exercising, cool down for about five to 10 minutes. Again, stretch your muscles slowly, and let your heart rate slow down gradually. You can use the same stretches you did in the warm-up period.

How hard do I have to exercise?

Even a little exercise is better than none. Start with an activity you can do comfortably. As you become more used to exercising, try to keep your heart rate at about 60 to 85 percent of your “maximum heart rate.” To figure out your target heart rate, subtract your age in years from 220 (this number equals your maximum heart rate), and then multiply that number by 0.60 or 0.85. For example, if you are 40 years old, you would subtract 40 from 220, which is 180 (220 − 40 = 180). Then you would multiply 180 by 0.60 or 0.85, which would give you 108 or 153 (180 × 0.60 = 108 and 180 × 0.85 = 153).

When you first start an exercise program, you may want to use the lower number (0.60) to calculate your target heart rate. Then, as your conditioning gets better, you may want to use the higher number (0.85) to calculate it. Check your pulse by gently resting two fingers on the side of your neck and counting the beats for one minute. Use a watch with a second hand as a timer.

How do I avoid injuring myself?

The safest way to keep from hurting yourself during exercise is to avoid trying to do too much too soon. Start with an activity that is fairly easy for you, such as walking. Do it for a few minutes a day or several times a day. Then slowly increase the time and level of activity. For example, increase how fast you walk over several weeks. If you feel tired or sore, ease up on the level of exercise or take a day off to rest. Try not to give up even if you don't feel great right away! Talk with your doctor if you have questions or think you have hurt yourself.

What about strength training?

Most kinds of exercise will help your heart and your other muscles. Resistance training is exercise that develops the strength and endurance of large muscle groups. Weight lifting is an example of this type of exercise. Exercise machines can also provide resistance training. Your doctor or a trainer at a gym can give you more information about exercising safely with weights or machines.

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